I was a freshman in high school when I first heard the word “ecology.” Our science teacher distributed a copy of a February 1970 TIME magazine article about American environmentalist Barry Commoner and his efforts to raise consciousness about the environmental crisis confronting the world. A few months later, the same science teacher spoke to us enthusiastically about the establishment of the first annual “Earth Day” in the United States on April 22, 1970.

I must confess, at the time I did not sense any great cause for alarm.  My biggest concern was getting a good grade for the science course! Although, obviously, I never pursued a career in science, I find it interesting that I remember that one article the science teacher handed out.

In the 52 years that have passed since that science class and the creation of the first “Earth Day,” so much of our national and international conversations about the environment have heightened our awareness of the effect of our stewardship of the earth – or lack thereof – and of its plentiful natural resources.  Hardly a day goes by without some mention in the media of the environmental crisis and the consequences that face our planet and its inhabitants – namely, us and those who will follow us!

In 2015, our Holy Father Pope Francis published a landmark encyclical “Laudato Sí’: On the Care of Our Common Home,” addressed to “every living person on the planet.” He is not the first pope nor was this the first time that the topic of environmental awareness and stewardship were addressed by the leadership of the Catholic Church.  

Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI often drew attention to the environment. “Christians, in particular,” wrote Pope St. John Paul II, “realize that their responsibility within creation and their duty towards nature and the Creator are an essential part of their faith” (1990, “Message for the World Day of Peace”).  In his 2009 encyclical letter “Caritas in Veritate,” Pope Benedict XVI stated, “Human freedom can make its intelligent contribution to positive evolution, but it can also add new evils, new causes of suffering, and real setbacks.” He continued, “For this reason, the Church’s action not only seeks to recall the duty to care for nature but at the same time must above all protect mankind from self-destruction.” Pope Francis has spoken of “care for our common home” as a moral issue requiring the action of all people – not sometime in the future, but now.

These contemporary prophetic voices find plentiful support in the writings of Sacred Scripture and the reflection of the great teachers of the Church throughout its history and tradition. St. Augustine (354-430) referred to care for creation as the “contemplation of God.” St. Hildegard of Bingen (1086-1179) reflected “the earth sustains humanity. It must not be harmed; it must not be destroyed.” St. Bonaventure (1217-1274) wrote, “The whole of creation can be considered as a most beautiful song that proclaims the beauty of the Creator … with an energetic voice.” And, of course, St. Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226) has traditionally been lifted up as the patron saint of nature and creation. The list goes on.  

We – both within and outside of the Church – depend upon science to help us understand what is happening in and to our world and why. The evidence and data are quite clear, quite detailed and quite alarming. They do not bode well for the future of our planet if we allow the current environmental situation to continue unchecked and unchallenged. The time to act is now. This is not “someone else’s problem.” It concerns each and every one of us. What can I do?

1. Be informed. Don’t ignore the signs all around you. It’s not rocket science!

2. Adjust your perspective and take care for the environment seriously as your own responsibility.

3. Change your behaviors. Even the smallest gesture is a contribution to the future.

4. See your commitment to respect and care for the environment as an expression of your gratitude to God as Creator of the world and all that is within it, a demonstration of your faith in God’s goodness and a sincere response to the moral imperative to be stewards of the gifts we have been given.

Pope Francis’ Laudato Sí is a prophetic and compelling summons to “every living person on the planet” to care for “our common home” and to commit ourselves to ending the exploitation of its natural resources. We need to hear his message without hesitation, pause or reserve:

“Today we celebrate Earth Day. I exhort everyone to see the world the through the eyes of God the Creator. The earth is an environment to be safeguarded, a garden to be cultivated. The relationship of mankind with nature should not be guided by greed, by manipulation and by exploitation. But it must preserve the Divine harmony that exists between creatures and creation with respect and care, so that it can be put to the service of our brothers and sisters and future generations.”